Editor’s Corner: Full Spectrum

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Editor’s note: We publish The Public Historian editor James F. Brooks’s introduction to the August 2019 issue of The Public Historian here. The entire issue is available online to National Council on Public History members and to others with subscription access.

This image is a detail of the cover of the 41.3 (August 2019) issue of The Public Historian. The cover features a green ground and a photograph of costumed interpreters speaking with the public outside. The interpreters are wearing eighteenth-century dress and are surrounded by produce such as cabbage and limes.

Interpreters and the public interact at the Museum of the American Revolution’s 2017 program “Occupied Philadelphia.” Photo credit: Museum of the American Revolution

This issue’s five articles range in setting from Colonial Williamsburg to the Iron Range of Minnesota and the Piney Woods of East Texas. They reach across method and practice from the historiography of hauntings to a surprising array of public responses to the British occupation of Revolutionary Philadelphia, and in theorization from the “authorizing” subtexts that lie beneath interpretation of Minnesota’s iron mines to “democratizing” institutional oral histories by soliciting accounts from unexpected quarters. As such, the issue reflects the kaleidoscopic display of our public history colleagues in action.

Alena Pirok shows us how W. A. R. Godwin, the quirky visionary behind Colonial Williamsburg, held a lifelong conviction that the site harbored not just an architectural history but a robust population of haunts, as well. In fact, rather than dismissing popular fascination with specters as frivolous, Pirok’s exploration of Williamsburg’s visitor experience reveals that “the public finds ghost stories an accessible way to connect with Williamsburg’s historical experience.” Beyond its significance to this particular historic site, she extends her analysis to suggest that we who engage the public in historic settings acknowledge that “hauntedness” is not so much an aspect of the macabre, but an important touchstone of affect for our visitors.

Tyler Rudd Putman, gallery education manager at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, takes us through an exercise in how to encourage historical empathy in visitors. His examples of “guerrilla interpretation” display how reenactments of six weeks in the autumn of 1777 sought to humanize the British troops. Forty-five volunteers, carefully selected for fealty to authenticity in comportment and costume, worked with museum staff to re-create aspects of the British occupation, especially quotidian scenes in marketplaces, alleyways, and private homes. The absence of “patriotic” (or “imperial”) narrative frames produced some surprising responses among visitors—a cheer when British soldiers discovered an American spy, for instance. Putman himself does not shy away from critique, confessing that the whiteness of the volunteer interpreters ran counter to the diversity that would have been present in 1777, or noting the difficulty of changing audience suppositions about the American women who took on roles as “camp followers.”

Joseph Whitson brings us into the nineteenth century and the upper Midwest with his treatment of Minnesota iron mines as “monuments” to the extractive industrial heartlands of the region. His essay alerts us to the ideological work beneath the interpretation at three different Iron Range mines (Rouchleau Pit, Hull-Rust, and Soudan), which illustrate the durability of perceptions embedded in settler colonialism. Removed, along with a century of ore and slag, is an indigenous Ojibwe story far deeper in time, now situated in an “inherently extractive landscape.” Whitson extends a critique more often seen in industrial heritage studies to a land of forests and lakes—interpretation oriented toward celebrating the necessity and wealth production of extractive industries in the face of environmentalist resistance also elides Native presence and claims to the land. By emphasizing the “deep history” of minerals-extraction, the interpretation naturalizes the industry and paves the way for new extractions, especially sulfide mining.

Al Clark takes us through an oral history project of the University of La Verne that illustrates how public historians’ attentiveness to a full spectrum of voices by race, class, gender, and occupational status can produce more textured and robust histories than those more commonly produced by public relations firms. Oral historical methods focused on interviews with lower ranks of service and teaching personnel and alumni rather than only those of administrators, executives, and development personnel offer an alternative, more three-dimensional approach to institutional history than the more conventional “picture book genre” that hews to public relations guidelines.

Paul Sandul closes out our offerings with a treatment of his East Texas Oral History project centered around the Piney Woods communities around Nacogdoches, which focuses on the little-known stories of African American settlement that began with the extension of chattel slavery into East Texas. Sandul draws from his cases to offer conceptual insights on oral history, shared inquiry, and authority. His goal, “to expand definitions of ‘expert’ and ‘expertise’ to include local African American community’s knowledge of history,” yields a promising insight when interviewee Patrick Sanders comments that the racism his progenitors (and he) experienced is, in fact, “learned behavior” that many in the white communities now disavow.

James Brooks is the editor of The Public Historian and professor of history and anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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